Elias James Corey

(b. 1928)

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(1928–) American chemist

Born in Methuen, Massachusetts, Corey was educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he originally intended to train as an electrical engineer. He switched to chemistry after attending a lecture course on organic chemistry. He obtained his doctorate in 1950 and, after a period at the University of Illinois, moved to Harvard in 1959 as professor of chemistry.

Corey is a synthetic chemist with over a hundred first syntheses to his credit. These include a number of substances used medicinally, such as ginkgolide B (a compound extracted from the ginkgo tree and used to treat asthma) and the synthetic prostaglandins (hormonelike compounds used to induce labor and to treat infertility).

Yet Corey has done much more than synthesize any number of complex molecules. He has also worked out and described in detail a new and fruitful systematic approach to synthetic chemistry. The difficulty facing the chemist presented with the problem of making a known complex compound is to determine which of several possible routes are worth pursuing.

Corey proposed a systematic scheme known as retrosynthetic analysis. In this, the targeted compound is broken in stages into smaller and smaller sub-units, at the same time ensuring that all the steps could be reversed at each stage. The starting point is a catalog of the main features of the compound in terms of chains, rings, branches, etc. Molecular complexity is then reduced by, for example, breaking chains and removing branches to obtain a set of rules that leads from compound to reactants and back to compound again.

Corey has given an account of his method in his book, The Logic of Chemical Synthesis (1989). He has also devised a computer program, LHASA (Logic and Heuristics Applied to Synthetic Analysis), to generate synthetic paths. For his work on retrosynthetic analysis Corey was awarded the 1990 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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